Independent filmmakers often want to work outside of the studio system not because they have failed at trying to get into that system, but because they feel the desire to make films that contradict the template of the studio system. While studios talk in terms of “broad market appeal”, independent filmmakers talk about “compelling stories”. Studios discuss $50 million dollar budgets. Indi filmmakers talk about maxing out their credit cards and borrowing from mom. Studios seek actors names as brands of varying strengths. Independent filmmakers spend countless hours looking for undiscovered or underexposed acting talent.
Independent film and studio films are two entirely different worlds. However, just because independent filmmakers consciously reject many of the artistic and technical components of studio films, they nevertheless would serve to benefit from a few of the fundamental tried and trusted lessons of studio filmmaking.
There are countless errors and compromises that first time indi filmmakers make in their quest to get their first feature film off the ground. Sometimes these errors are caused by hastiness and other times they are caused because the filmmaker simply lacks experience in technical areas such as sound, design, script development or cinematography to name only a few. This blog post will outline some of the most common, yet avoidable, errors that independent filmmakers make while trying to launch their independent films.
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Message by: Lights Film School
The good news is that there has been a growing sector of independent films that have achieved a considerable amount of audience praise and there has even been an incredibly impressive amount of independent films winning Oscars and other prestigious awards recently. The most contemporary example is “Slumdog Millionaire”. Other recent examples include “Shakespeare in Love”, “Clerks” and “The English Patient” to name only a few.
The challenge facing independent films is that their budgets are often 1/20th that of a studio film, and often much less. Most independent films cost 3 million or less to make. Some are made on as little as $3000. This means that you will often have to wrap up your film in half the time, with a fraction of the crew you would normally have for a studio film. This could also mean limited or no time for watching the dailies and obviously budget restrictions would mean you would undoubtedly have casting restrictions, script restrictions, lighting restrictions and camera restrictions to name on a few of the limitations involved when working within a limited budget. Independent feature films are often shot in as little as 17-30 days. Feature films often allow for around 45-60 days for shooting.
We have outlined below the 11 most common & avoidable errors that independent filmmakers make when working on their films and documentaries:
1. White Walls
White walls make film sets appear flat, lifeless and dull. Dress up your walls with colors and textures, wallpapers and fabrics. It helps add a dramatic impact to each shot and also helps complement your actors in front of the wall.
2. Lack of coverage
Many independent films are shot with 1 camera. This can cause many problems in editing if not done correctly. Your film could suffer from lack of coverage, lack of sufficient angle changes, continuity issues and so on. While many studio films will cover a scene using 3 or more cameras at different angles (and they may do this for 5 takes), independent films generally only have time to do a couple of takes / scene.
As a rule of thumb, get your actors to repeat the scene a few times and cover it from 2-4 different angles that cover a range of 45-90 degrees (angle changes help hide your cut points and create the illusion of continuity). Obviously over the shoulder shots come in handy for dialogue sequences but often filmmakers forget to capture enough footage of their actors listening to the speaker. This is great “responsive footage” that you can use to help fill holes in editing and maintaining your film’s pace.
3. Music & Score
Too often independent filmmakers have unrealistic music goals such as wanting to use Madonna as their soundtrack. Just as often, they have under-ambitious goals using boring or cheesy stock music or the poorly recorded music of their friends. You need to find music that compliments the tone of your film. One excellent idea our filmmakers have used a couple of times, is that the have identified great bands with professional recordings in their geographic area (using Myspace music search) and offered to shoot a music video for the group or individual in exchange for the rights to use the bands music in their film. This gives the independent filmmaker experience and access to great music.
Independent films often overuse clichés. The actors often say predicable things, the set design is overly obvious, the costumes play into stereotypes and so on. Try to be more subtle and engaging with your audience. They will appreciate it.
5. Out of Focus
Studio films have not only a camera operator for their multiple cameras, but also someone responsible solely for “pulling focus”. In independent films however, the director is often the camera operator and they often don’t use a monitor, but instead rely on a small LCD screen. Small errors in focus in the LCD screen become magnified thousands of times when blown up for the big screen or television sets. Set up each of your shots and double and triple check your focus. Most camera’s have an “expand focus” option: Use it! Soft focus is not the end of the world, but if it’s in every single one of your shots then you’ll annoy your audience. Worst of all, as your characters change their position within the frame, soft focus often becomes blatantly blurred focus. Be careful with this technical setting.
Virtually every independent filmmaker fails to pay enough attention to sound on their first production. Bad sound is almost always less forgivable than bad cinematography. Bad sound manifests itself with continuity errors in room tone, dialogue frequency errors, too “live” a sound and so on. Find yourself a good sound team to pay as much attention to the sound of your film as you would pay to your film’s cinematography.
7. Bad Booming
This is related to sound, but often your boom operator will get in the way of the shot. They will not know their placement limitations and the Director of Photography won’t notice the boom or the shadow of the boom in the frame. Poor lighting and lighting limitations are often to blame for this error. Harsh lighting will often cast hard shadows that are not noticed until post production.
8. Careless Handheld Work
Independent filmmakers lie to themselves when they say “my handheld footage looks like steadycam footage”. Trust us, it’s doesn’t.. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use handheld footage, but it means you should use it wisely or sparingly and only when the scene calls for this type of camera movement.
9. Location Realities
This problem is related to the next problem which has to do with a script shootablity issues. As stated above, independent films often need to be filmed in a shorter period of time. Therefore having 16 locations in 3 countries may be possible, but not without comprise of your final product. Try location scouting with you budget and time restraints in mind.
10. Script Shootablity Problems
On a related note, independent films often write scripts that don’t lend themselves well to small budgets. The need for special effects, too many locations, too many characters, to elaborate of sets etc etc.
A good story doesn’t require explosions, CGI and an extra cast of 2000 people. Write your script with your budget in mind. Don’t push your script beyond your budget limitations or the compromises will become visible immediately.
This is a big one. Independent film lighting is often either too exaggerated or almost non existent. Lighting is a major component of a film. It adds shape to your characters, it needs to complement your story and tone and most importantly it creates the mood for your film. You don’t need to have access to cube vans carrying millions of dollars worth of lighting, but you should have a lighting kit that will work well for your independent film budget and script. Don’t forget to audition different lighting scenarios for each of your scenes. Lighting helps bring your set to life.
If you keep an eye on each of these 11 components of your film you will be ahead of most of the filmmakers in the independent market. Good luck!
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